I answered the ad out of desperation. It had been over ten months since we’d had more income than outgo and our savings was seeping its final sludge. Sheila wrote in a frenzy, her supernatural romance stories (Can the two concepts even pass on the same road? I’d asked once) ignored more than acknowledged much less accepted for publication in women’s magazines in those grubby piles in healthcare offices. She’d criticize me for saying that but I’m not feeling generous in my support lately. Not that she is feeling more thrilled about my situation. I was a junior banker who made some very wrong investments of my own money and then flat-out lost my temper with the branch manager. Got fired. Those are the worst two words in my adult vocabulary. I swore I’d never have to hear them like my father did too many times, that sly master of reinvention. Turns out I have a judgment problem much like he did and a patience problem that I can claim all on my own. But I do know better than to behave like an ingrate and tiresome crank. It’s just… that’s been where we’ve been.
So when I answered the ad looking for “caretakers of a moderately sized estate in northwest Portland; housing provided with monthly salary for up to one year”, I jumped on it. Nothing was nothing; this was something.
“Caretakers? Like grounds maintenance, a kind of security or even taking care of a pack of fussy dogs and bringing in mail? Or more?” Sheila looked up from her PC, her salt and pepper hair swinging away from her chin.
“That sounds about right,” I agreed.
She’d let it grow–good haircuts were too costly now–and I had to suppress an urge to tuck it behind her ear to better see her face. Just to touch her without thinking it through. But the moment passed.
She scrutinized the computer screen. “Well, why not? Maybe we can keep watch over someone else’s material goods better than our own. You can cobble things together that need fixing. You can mow the heck out of yards and like smelly dogs. What does it pay?”
I named a figure which was vastly less than what I once brought home but more than we could possibly hope for in upcoming months if my job hunt trend held.
“Okay,” she said and then began typing once more rapt deep attention, her dismissal made clear.
Shelia has what my mother had called “stick-tuitive-ness”. I always wondered where that came from–was that a combination of perseverance and intuition? Because that’s what Sheila demonstrated. She kept at something even if it appeared unworthy of such effort. And her intuition was embarrassingly on key, so that when our investments failed she didn’t have to say a word since she’d already forecast as much. She should have been the banker. But she hadn’t predicted I ‘d get fired. She was busy getting over a terrible thing while I failed her.
I was not sure it wasn’t a hoax when I got a call from the ad placers. Didn’t they have a grounds keeper and security guards already? But no, this was different, they wanted someone to keep an eye on things; they’d check in electronically on much but they needed a presence. And they weren’t ordinary rich people. They were verging on famous, at least in our part of the country, equally political and creative, a double leg-up. Self-made man and woman who had already reached a pinnacle or two in their thirties. They liked to travel and turned humanitarian trips into long term stints of living abroad, this time in Turkey, Mr. H. said, after touring parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.
I say “Mr. H.” because we were not allowed to disclose just for whom we were house caretaking–if we even got hired. I supposed that meant we might have to cut off usual contact for awhile with all our friends. The two or three we had left.
“Turkey?” I said without thinking. It wasn’t my business.
Mr. H. laughed. “I know, surprising, isn’t it? Beautiful coastline. We’re house hunting among other things.” He changed tack, was all business again. “I appreciate your resume. Bankers speak my language and writers appeal to us both. Good combo for any partnership, am I right?”
“Sure is, opposites spark great things.” I felt like an idiot for that remark. When would he ask about my last position, why I was out of a job?
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll have your references checked and get back to you in forty eight hours. If all pans out we’ll meet for coffee for a brief interview. We’re running out of time–no one else looks this good on paper. Plus I like how you converse. The main thing is to have someone to watch over the property and I trust very few to do that simple task. Last one didn’t work out, he was a partier.”
“Not us, we’re more quiet types…creative wife and all.”
The fact that he was, among other things, part owner of a Northwest music recording studio might have helped. Sheila always said she had been hooked by my voice, insisting I could have been a radio announcer instead of a boring (if better off) banker. Or, more likely, Mr. H. just wanted to tick off this chore from an impressive task list and get out of the country.
We passed muster and met. They were rushed, gracious, very confident of themselves and liked us, and Shelia thought far better looking than news’ photos allowed. We later began to radically sort and toss all we didn’t put into storage or give or lend to others for the time being, then moved fast. Our house was rented to Shelia’s relocating cousins a week later for far too little.
We eyed the H. manse in silence as we drove around the corner and pulled into a side road to our new residence. Our modestly sized structure was built for Mrs. H.’s parents visits or others invited for more than a night or two. It had been empty for two months and was spotless, smelled woodsy. Each ivory- walled room glowed beneath pallid stripes of sun; there were two large bedrooms and an attic-shaped study, two full baths, a proper kitchen and smallish lodge-like living area.
“We hit the jackpot,” Sheila said as she unpacked and put away books in her room with a lot of soft muttering.
“Are you being sarcastic? Because it’s a really decent cottage for the hired hand’s place. Not like our suburban colonial but I never liked it that much, anyway, if you want to know the truth.”
“Not the time for truth telling. I already I miss our back yard. My study.”
“It’s winter, no one misses back yards in rain–and now we have all this weird snow. Besides, their back yard looks like wild acreage. I think he said it was an acre at least. There are probably lots of birds. We like birds. And hey, there are no animals to tend.”
“I’ll miss our yard, anyway,” she said under her breath, as if trying to still the urge to raise her voice. “It was our yard, our patio, our flowers and birds, our…new swing set…”
“No, don’t, not now, please,” I cautioned and slipped out of her room and into mine.
We’ve both had our own rooms since the miscarriage. That was well over ten months ago, right before I was fired. We’ve been on a downhill roll ever since, as if two giant boulders–job loss and miscarriage–are pursuing us and will crush us if we keep looking behind so I try not to look hard. That’s what I think. I don’t know just what she thinks, anymore. She’s still curled inside a thick cocoon of grief and I’m outside of it, trying to rally, prepping for what life has to throw at us next. I hope and pray I can keep standing up.
The fact is, though, our nice house was no longer the home we needed it to be. It was a reminder of all that was out of our hands, destroyed. The cottage was perfect, even if only for a pause.
She used to call me “Lover” and “Cap”, short for “Captain” since I am nuts about boats, especially handmade boats. Like the one we had as a kid, handed down from my grandfather who designed and built it. But that was then, no fancy boat now, I sold it. I will surely rue that day.
But Sheila, she used to sneak up behind me, plant a kiss on nape of my neck or scratchy jaw when I was sitting to remove my bank shoes, which had to not be the best places after working all day. She used to do a lot of things. But the same goes for me. The difference is that she can still create in her stories how she wishes things might be, and I am stuck with a lack of imagination. I didn’t used to think I was short on that reasonable and crucial daydreamer quotient, but I’ve run out of ideas to comfort her. To make up for disappointing her. No, it was more like my creating mayhem when we had already taken a hard punch. It didn’t matter that that was why I lost it at the bank that day. A very few people knew what had happened to the brand new life we’d made, but that didn’t excuse how I swiped papers and files off my desk and told my boss he was an “overrated money changer who knew far less than most of us working our asses off, even if I am about broke now” and stormed out into the rain, leaving my SUV in the parking lot for two days. I was lucky that wasn’t hauled away. Or maybe not; I still owe on it.
I wasn’t raised to shirk responsibility, for all the fluky moves my father made he taught us the basic decent ways to think. I know I did the most wrong thing and added immeasurably to her pain. I took away all we had worked for in such a short time, it was a landslide of trouble. But it’s like I inherited that gene, the screw up gene, and no matter how well I dress him up the man I still am is finally someone who misses the beat when he has so long waited for his cue to play that one right, beautiful note at exactly the right time.
I looked out the window at the shimmering snowdrifts. I’ve shoveled and powered up the snow blower a few times, try to keep it pristine. I’d passed Sheila as I came in to warm up and eat a snack. She was reading, looking into more submission possibilities. She hasn’t done so badly; she published three stories last year. But that was last year, the “Before” time; this is “After.” The fact that she’s even writing a couple hours most days is a good sign, even if she does trash most of what she does. She always types as if in hyper drive, and then afterwards slumps about and scowls at nothing until falling into bed. Depression is exhausting. I feel it, too, but it often rolls away as if it wants a different host. I’m too cold to be attractive to such a malady, she told me last month.
“How’s it going today?” I asked, my hand just brushing her back. She didn’t flinch.
“It’s all gone for today. I’d had Marcella meeting up with Roarke at a side street cafe after hours but then he didn’t even show.”
I’ve always had to think about those statements. I know it’s fiction she’s talking of and they are characters and she is telling me something that matters. But it rarely makes sense to me.
“He didn’t show up?”
“No, he had something better to do, I guess. Or another woman, but that’s such old news, not worth a paragraph.”
“You’re the writer but don’t yet know why he didn’t bother to show up?” I kept it light. I suspected she wondered if I’d strayed. I couldn’t even bear the thought.
She turned sharply to me and glared, then smoothed her face with tapered fingertips as if very tired of having to explain things to me. “No, Garrett, that’s why I’m not writing right now. I just have to wait and see, like it or not.” She pulled her shoulders up high and let them fall down again, then pulled them back and sat up straighter. “Life, itself, is just a wait and see thing, don’t you agree?”
I contemplated my response; it felt like a trap, as things often did when we talked. “I guess that’s about right,” I said, padded up the stairs to my room.
“We agree for once, thank you for that.”
But her voice held no malice, more like tentative acceptance of one immeasurably small step forward. I almost returned to her but she was up and into the kitchen. I could have been wrong, so kept on.
It tended to feel better, perhaps safer, on the second floor. In my own room. I could see everything, the contemporary grandeur of the H. manse glowing and extending far beyond scattered evergreens, birds flitting from one oak branch to another, the giant magnolia waiting for any signals from an impending spring, far off yet. Street noise was minimal out there in the west hills. Sometimes it felt like we were hunkered down, very far from the world. We were on our second month and it was becoming more comfortable for me. I could see the benefits in Sheila, too. How she liked to lounge before the fieldstone fireplace redolent with wood that I split, fire snapping and sizzling, her favorite poetry book or magazine in hand. How she sought the right birdseed at the garden store and fed the birds carefully, as if their lives depended on her help.
I wondered if she knew how much I waited for her, too. How the bitter anger at God and myself had started to wane and a worn hollow was left in its place. Wanting something else there. But she had more and more not encouraged lengthy conversation much less my embrace. I understood, too.
There careened through the pane of glass in a window an odd swoosh sound and then a long scraping noise and muffled voices, a shriek of pleasure. I peeked out the window over my dresser. There were kids sledding down a swell of snowy earth near one end of our cottage. They were flattening and displacing snow from yard to sidewalk and street as their blue saucers and orange toboggans rushed perilously past occasional cars inching along, their horns honking. One kid was throwing snowballs with murderous zeal at someone just out of sight. They looked to be about ten or eleven.
Downstairs I grabbed my jacket and gloves. “Going to see what some kids are up to,” I tossed at Shelia and she followed me to the door to take a look.
“Up to no good, likely,” she said. “Trespassers.”
I came upon them from behind the evergreens.
“Boys! Stop all this!”
They were in the thick of a snowball fight and ignored me or didn’t register I was yelling at them.
I strode up closer. “Stop this now, kids, you’re trespassing on private property!”
Then one ceased fire and looked around as if to ask where did I mean.
“This belongs to a well known family, as you must surely know,” I half-bellowed, “and they wouldn’t like to hear about such disrespect!”
A fast snowball was stopped by my not inconsiderable chest. I took another step forward.
One of the boys, not biggest but bravest, stepped up as the other two stepped back. “Can I ask who you might be, mister? Not one of our neighbors. Are you supposed to be here…?”
He talked bigger than he felt, I could tell. I relaxed my stance.
“Well, I’m Garrett, the current caretaker of the estate here,” I gestured behind me. “And who are you three?”
They then sloppily lined up, called out their names.
“I’m Chuck Dyson, Mr. Garrett.”
I nodded at them after deciding to not correct the use of my first name as my last.
“Terry here, sir. Hartner.”
“Matt Engels, I live across the street.” The bravest had spoken and pointed at a large grey house. “We all do, we know the owners, sorta. Terry lives down the street that way.” He swiped his runny nose with the back of his snow-encrusted mitten and pushed his dark hair from bright eyes. “We thought nobody was home. They go off for a long time. This part isn’t fenced off so sometimes we like to sled and stuff if they’re gone. No harm, right?”
“Well, we saw lights there a few times–at the guesthouse,” Chuck said. “We thought it might be last visitors, is all.”
“And that makes it okay for you boys to potentially wreck their yard? Make a bunch of noise? We live here now and for a long while.”
Terry, the one with the freckled face, finally spoke up. “Well, no, sir, wouldn’t want to cause any problems. We’re just having fun. No school the last three days!”
I started to laugh despite myself. The boys slapped and pushed at each other, slipping and sliding in the slick snow.
“Well, I see, alright, then. Next time come to the cottage door and ask my wife and me first. We might be sleeping . But I just don’t want the yard to get damaged. It’s my job now. Maybe enough for one day, okay guys?”
“Yes sir,” Terry said, smiling a gap-toothed grin, “we’ll check next time.”
“Thanks, Mr. Garrett!” Chuck punched the air with fisted mitten and headed off, sled under arm.
But Matt stood there and considered a moment. “I guess you’re not too into sledding, anymore?”
“I don’t really know, Matt, haven’t done it in many years.”
“Well, want to now?”
Matt Engels’ eyes were vivid with high jinks and just life, and blue as the icicles melting against a winter bright sky. And I thought for a moment that my own son’s eyes might have been that blue if he’d kept growing, if he had gotten to be born. Like Shelia’s, a fine silvery blue like a summer’s high alpine lake that ran deep and clear. If he’d stayed alive and blinked at us. And the man I was and wanted to be stood there weakened by the thought, assailed by sensations I couldn’t name, when Matt determined he had an assent from the old guy and thrust the saucer at me. I took it with a nod, sat down and pushed off, went flying down the small hill and across the sidewalk, over the curb, into the street where no cars were coming. Just three boys witnessed a grown man brought to a sudden halt on the other side by a snow laden bush. Then I sprawled face down into a drift. Mouth was full of the freezing sweet stuff, laughing so hard my sides hurt and eyes watered. Maybe I was verging on hysteria but it felt so good.
“Sir, you alright?” Terry called out as he ran back to him. “That was a good one.”
Chuck and Matt were close behind, tried to help him to his feet.
“I’m fine,” I said as I caught his breath, righted myself. ” Come on, let’s go again!”
We all jumped on the sleds and headed down. Time evaporated, I felt an easing away from pain, the sun spilling over my face and almost rendering me young again.
Sheila watched. She was not far from the hilly spot and felt herself pulled closer. She snugged up her wool jacket to her too-bony frame. Saw her husband playing , saw him chatting and carrying on with three boys. Boys like she wanted. Saw him leave behind devastation for a few moments as he whooped and hollered all the way down the rise of land, their new back yard. She yearned for him. She felt him in her bones much like she had felt the baby, with her whole being, in her spirit and her blood. She longed for him, her good husband, her dearest friend. So she walked between the towering, attentive trees and stood above him when he returned with the bouncing sled. She jostled his elbow. His thoughtful eyes and chapped lips softened as if she’d kissed him.
“Take me with you, Cap,” she said, lower lip caught between front teeth.
Garrett set her safe between bent knees on the small toboggan and they bumped and sailed down without once dumping as the boys let loose a cheer.